I was introduced to the concept of “Asset Based Community Development” back in 2003 when I got a job working at a busy drop-in for homeless people in Toronto. I had already worked in community work for several years, and was very committed to social change and social justice. The E.D. who hired me was passionate about community development, and told me that she wanted my work to come from a Community Development lens. I really didn’t know what that meant, but I searched out the core CD literature and read John McKnight’s paper “Mapping Community Capacity”. The Asset Based concept blew my mind and challenged me in my work – here I was, taking care of ‘those less fortunate’, literally feeding, sheltering and comforting homeless people who came to our centre hungry and in crisis. And John McKnight was challenging me to step back and facilitate change by building on the strengths in the community. So I did. My self-concept changed, from being a ‘social justice crusader’ to a ‘CD facilitator’, and I began to, tentatively at first, and then creatively, look for ways to honour and foster strengths. I asked the homeless community members about their strengths, and learned a lot. They were happy to talk and share, and of course, each one of them had unbelievable stories of strength. We did amazing work together in a short period of time – we started a group called HEAT, our ‘Homeless Education and Action Team’, made up of homeless and housed community members who wanted to work on changing the perceptions of homelessness. We started a program where we went into the schools to speak with students, all the way from grade 1 to high school, about the realities of homelessness. Students were shocked and transformed through these workshops. We organized an art show, to highlight the amazing art that was done by homeless community members in our neighborhood. The art show was unbelievably successful, in terms of attendance and art purchased as well as media attention. And the pride in our drop-in the days and weeks after the art show was unmistakable.
Fast forward 13 years, I am now teaching Community Development, and my students are really challenged by the “Asset Based” concept. I believe, and teach, that this concept is what sets Community Development apart from all of the other ‘helping’ fields, and stemming from the perspective, CD work is much more focused on facilitating change, leadership and process instead of ‘fixing problems’. When I teach ABCD (Asset Based Community Development), I show the wonderful TED Talk of Angela Blanchard, from Neighborhood Centers Inc. about changing our first questions. Her passion is deeply moving, as she challenges all of us who work in the community sector to change our question from “What is wrong? What is the problem? What are the gaps/needs?” to the questions: “What’s working? What’s strong? What’s right?” Her most important message is “You can’t build on broken.”
I think this concept is deeply unsettling and needs to be consciously considered, not just in the CD field, but to all of us. Everywhere we go, the focus is on fixing problems. Problem-solving is a buzz word these days, in our work places, in our home life and in our approach to day-to-day living. With all of our problem-solving, are we missing the assets, or as conceptualized by Dan and Chip Heath in their book “Switch”, the ‘bright spots’? Their concept is similar to ABCD, that innovations emerge from finding the ‘bright spots’. When we are faced with a problem, we are naturally steered towards analyzing the problem, spending our time and money on analyzing statistics and trying to understand why this problem exists. Instead, finding the ‘bright spots’ means looking for the exceptions to the problem. For example, even though 90% drop out of school, who are the 10% who don’t drop out and why? What is unique to those who are exceptions? What can we learn from these bright spots to understand and share?
Another model that shares the same spirit is the Appreciative Inquiry method, which is a business strengths-based consultancy approach to Organizational Development. Once again, in the business world, AI was born out of the realization that the problem-solving approach is limited and flawed. The AI approach poses strengths-based questions in a strategic change process, to vision and bring out the best in an organization.
I catch myself working from a problem-solving mentality. It is so easy, and prevalent in our culture, that I need to consciously challenge myself to find ‘the bright spots’. This is in all of my work – at my paid work, volunteer work and in my family/parenting work. What I tell my students, and what I need to tell myself as well, is that it doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge the needs/gaps/problems. Of course we do. We acknowledge it, and do what we need to do. But, then we move on. We are deliberate about how we spend our time and energy. To truly transform our communities, we need to dedicate ourselves to seeking out and fostering the ‘bright spots’. In doing this, I hope we can make the world a little brighter.